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Camellia blossom. Camellia blossom.

Kurume, Japan was the 2010 host city of the biannual meeting of The International Camellia Society. Kurume is a small town in Kyushu, which is the southern most of the four main islands of Japan.  I attended the meeting to present information on Longwood Gardens' camellia breeding program and to network with other camellia researchers. On the first day of the meeting we traveled to a camellia fair at the Ishibashi Cultural Center. There we enjoyed a camellia bonsai exhibit, a large camellia garden, an art museum, a stage with performances and vendors selling plants, food and other goods such as camellia oil. There are two main types of camellia oil; Camellia oleifera oil, which is used for cooking and soaps, and Camellia japonica oil, which is used for skin and hair products.

300-year-old camellia tree. 300-year-old camellia tree.

After the Ishibashi Cultural Center we visited an azalea center, a school, a plant nursery, a camellia show, a camellia garden, a cemetery, a tree farm AND a temple…..phew that was a lot of walking. We saw ten different places in a four hour period! One of the most impressive sites was a camellia tree that was about 300 years old. The picture shows my wife Elizabeth standing next to the trunk. The following day was the first of three mornings of presentations. The presentations covered camellia history and culture and featured speakers from the USA, UK, Belgium, Spain, Japan and Germany.

In the afternoon we visited a large commercial nursery, which had a potpourri of plants scattered around in no particular order. There were remarkable podocarpus and Japanese black pines that were pruned using Japanese techniques to create a tiered effect. Following the trip to the Nursery, we went on a residential garden tour where we saw some amazing two to three hundred year old camellia trees. Many of the older camellias were C. japonica, which is said to be native to Japan. However, there is a controversy around the nativity of C. japonica (which I will discuss later). That said, these plants were thriving in the climate of southern Japan. The second morning of talks covered camellia environment, biodiversity and conservation, and featured speakers from Japan and China. I was excited to hear about C. chuangtsoensis, which is a newly discovered ever-blooming yellow camellia.

Tiered Japanese black pine. Tiered Japanese black pine.

I discussed the possibility of getting one of these plants from scientists working with this species, and they said it might be possible if I could come visit them in China... my fingers are crossed. In the afternoon, we visited Kumamoto Castle, which was built in 1607. The castle was hosting a Higo camellia Bonsai show. Higo camellias are distinguished by their stamens that flare out from the center, creating a firework-like appearance. The bonsais were created with nontraditional techniques: large stumps of camellias are excavated from the ground and cut down to size; they are then placed in a bucket of water in order to produce a fibrous root system. This stump is then planted into a bonsai pot and Higo camellia scions are grafted onto the top of the stump. The scions are trained using metal wire. The bonsai are completed in a much shorter time than with traditional techniques. See pictures of the process below.

Higo camellia bonsai process. Higo camellia bonsai process.

The last day of talks covered molecular biology of camellias. I was one of the speakers, and the title of my presentation was “Somatic embryogenesis and embryo germination of C. azalea × C. japonica ‘Maiden of Great Promise’.” For more information on this topic, please refer to the upcoming issue of the International Camellia Journal. Two of the other talks touched on the evolution or nativity of C. japonica, the primary ornamental species of camellia. This is where the controversy comes in. Camellias are held in high regard by both Japanese and Chinese cultures. Apparently, both the Japanese and Chinese want to claim this plant as native in their respective countries. It is unlikely that the true nativity of camellias will ever be proven, so it seems this debate will ensue into the unforeseeable future. The last day of tours we visited a tea plantation. For those of you who don’t know, tea is made from Camellia sinensis. So every time you have a cup of tea you are tasting camellias. At the plantation we saw the tea fields, visited the processing plant and tasted tea grown on-site. This facility only produced green tea, the most popular type of tea in Japan.

Tea Plantation. Tea Plantation.

The 2010 Camellia Congress gave me the opportunity to see some unbelievable camellias and make connections with some of the other camellia lovers and researchers of the world. Longwood Gardens' research department will be attempting the bonsai techniques observed at Kumamoto Castle. If successful, these plants will eventually be on display in the bonsai house.

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